The first image in Detropia, the excellent new documentary about the decline of Detroit from filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp), is of a conductor raising his baton to lead an orchestra. It's a clue that what we're about to see is a city symphony film, in the tradition of Man With a Movie Camera -- a poetic collage of real people moving through their lives, interacting with their environments.
In this case, that environment is a Detroit that, as the rest of the country is shocked into austerity by the financial crisis, is still reeling from the cost-cutting of the Big Three automakers, who have moved most manufacturing jobs to Mexico or China. As the jobs have disappeared from Detroit, so have the people: at the start of the film, we learn that one family moves out of the city every twenty minutes, and 10,000 abandoned homes are slated for demolition. The city is, as its unpopular mayor puts it, "broke," so he announces a plan to "consolidate" the community, asking people who live in outlying, underpopulated areas to move downtown so that the city can better provide them services. But moving costs money, and the city isn't offering a financial incentive.
What the mayor's plan ignores -- and the film powerfully brings into focus -- is that many of those who haven't left Detroit are bound to their neighborhoods not just by financial constraints, but by an emotional connection to their city and its history. One of the film's most colorful characters is Crystal Starr, a 20-something local blogger who stalks through abandoned buildings with a flashlight in one hand and a Flip cam in the other. She's motivated, she says, by "the memory of this place when it was banging."
That Detroit was a post-war Mecca, as a center of both American manufacturing and uniquely American pop culture, is demonstrated by excerpts from Design for Dreaming, a late-50s quasi-propaganda film prominently figuring the American car in a utopian (autopian?) American future. That said future looks more like a dystopia is evident not just from Ewing and Grady's ample footage of burned out and abandoned buildings, but also from the running thread concerning the endangered Detroit Opera House, which can't function without major corporate sponsorship from the auto companies, and which is in danger of closing, to the concern of local businesses who depend on theater traffic; and from the scenes concerning the white hipster artists who are starting to colonize downtown Detroit (where an upscale loft apartment can apparently be purchased for $25,000 [!]), or of European tourists who blithely admit to have been attracted to the city for its "decay."
Detropia is not an advocacy film; it doesn't provide solutions to the problems seen on screen, and it leaves a lot of questions unanswered. But the images speak for themselves, not least because they're so beautifully considered and composed. As handheld, faux-documentary "realism" becomes the dominant mode of indie narrative films, the standout documentaries are the ones that tack the other way, embracing the cinematic possibilities of the real.